Basil and Victoria London Guttersnipes cover header

Basil and Victoria: London Guttersnipes

This is a reprint of a Pipeline column from January 2014:  It has been lightly edited and slightly reformatted.

 

Basil and Victoria: London Guttersnipes

Basil and Victoria London Guttersnipes cover from Humanoids

When a publisher does such a good job describing their series, I see no need to attempt rewriting it myself. This is how Humanoids describes “Basil & Victoria: London Guttersnipes”:

London, 1887. While the British Empire is at its peak, and influences the majority of the world, most of London still lives amid poverty, disease, and crime. Basil and Victoria are two of the thousands of orphaned street urchins who survive by hustling, selling rats, and sleeping on the docks. Helped by Cromwell, their faithful bulldog, the trio travel from the mean streets of Whitechapel to exotic distant lands, meeting famous, and infamous, historical and literary figures along the way, as they lovingly bicker and squabble the entire time!

 

The Art of Edith

Two things immediately stand out about this book.
First, the art is by the singly-named Edith (short for Edith Grattery), who handles both the final art and the color work. In the first two chapters, in particular, it’s a beautiful look at the grimy side of London in a dark time, with a technique that mixes strong textures with the colors. I’m not sure if its crayons, charcoals, or colored pencils, but it looks amazing.

Her art, at first glance, is cartoonish, along the same lines as a Lewis Trondheim, but mixed with beautifully detailed architectural backgrounds that give the book a strong setting. Interesting buildings, dirty side rooms, and murky wharves fill the back alleys of London.

The browns and grays that dominate the book aren’t overwhelming. They help to set the scene of a dirt poor city as seen from the seediest parts of it by two spunky kids forced to collect rats for pay to feed themselves.

The third and fourth books in the series move the action to the sea, Zanzibar, and Scotland. It becomes a far brighter book, and the overloaded grimness of the art warps into something else. The cartooning stands out more than the coloring technique. Some sequences seem downright simple. But Edith continuously returns to the roots of the book with painterly backgrounds.

Even in simple scenes where it’s characters acting out against a sparse backdrop, the coloring adds some textured gradients without being that school of Photoshop that at times dominated comics in the 90s. (The third book came out in 1995. The fourth and fifth books came out more than a decade later.)

The fifth book is back to grimy stories in poor London, now starring a gang of chimney sweeps. Edith has a chance here to add lots more black ink to the page and does so in spades. Between the chimneys and the black crows that dominate this story, the final look is a return to the form of the first two books.

The story also feels more action packed, with lots of high rooftop action and fighting that give the book an extra few thrills along the way.

Historical Fiction: Bring In the Big Guns

The other standout is that it incorporates many of the well-known names of the time you’d expect without being corny. The scripts by Yann (short for Yannick Le Pennetier) are smart. They’re clever without being obvious.

It’s part of the book’s character that Yann sets it in the real world of its time. He even includes famous historical characters, both real and fictional. Yann’s script references Sherlock Holmes, but Watson actually makes a (memorable and hilarious) appearance. Charles Dickens, whose name is synonymous with this genre of storytelling, makes an appearance.

The second volume, “Jack,” does of course star the serial murderer you were expecting. Thankfully, I remembered just enough of “From Hell” to laugh at some of the historical facts and how they blended them into this story so seamlessly. It’s an alternate take on the mystery that fits perfectly into the character of the series and still manages to evoke a few chuckles between the gruesome murders. Deservedly so, the Jack the Ripper story won “Basil and Victoria” the Best Album prize at Angouleme in 1993.

 

It’s All About The Kids

The core of the series, though, is the relationship between the two title characters. They are doomed to stick with each other forever. There are obviously unrequited feelings there for each other that neither will ever really admit to, but it keeps them together even when going their separate ways seems like a better idea.

They’re both, on the surface, hard-bitten street kids who can wheel and deal to keep themselves alive. They’re scrappy fighters who’ve lived through many lifetimes’ worth of crap already, and Yann doesn’t resist piling more on them, particularly in the first book, which features a related death or two that will surprise you, I think. There’s no cheating for the sake of a happy ending, and characters don’t suddenly act in the best of human nature for the sake of a clean story.

While Victoria’s feelings for Basil come out to the surface more, Basil is a typical boy. It’s always “hurt the one you love,” right? He does that by being the Ladies Man, flaunting it in front of Victoria, even when it’s clearly not appealing to him. It’s all a show. He loves taunting Victoria, but is also a dumb enough boy that he doesn’t realize what he’s doing or see the obvious happening in front of him.

The five book series ends without concluding this, as it should. They’re still too young to properly sort that all out. Let us, as readers, delight in the awkwardness that the stories have because of it.

 

A Book of Its Time

Besides the characters, there’s also a lot of historical detail strewn throughout the book. A series of footnotes explains some of the slang terms and historical moments that the book brings up. The book isn’t always pretty, as Victorian England, itself, wasn’t by today’s standards. Class, racial, and sexual division were a normal part of life.

And, it would seem, the sailors in Her Majesty’s service were usually thought to be gay. It’s a repeated gag, but Yann plays it against type as much as he does to type. The double standards inherent in women selling their bodies as opposed to men doing it come to light in a couple of cases that show it well.

Obviously, this isn’t a book for kids. There aren’t many swear words, but it’s a mature book, particularly in handling the sexual situations, some of the violent moments, and the questionable language of the day. Again, Yann’s script handle the issues of racism and class-ism straight on with direct language. Unless you want to start explain that to your youngest right away, this isn’t the book for them.

This wouldn’t surprise fans of Yann who might have previously read any of his “Les Innommables” series. I picked up a volume of that in San Diego a decade ago. Didier Conrad’s cartooning is stunning, but the story is a brutal combination of sex and violence. I’m not sure it would translate well to an American audience, no matter how hard a translator worked to smooth things over. The series originally started in Spirou Magazine, but didn’t last long because it was too adult for that magazine. (Conrad, I should mention, is the current “Asterix” artist, and a great fit for that style.)

But if you know Yann for his work on books like the Lucky Luke spin-off, “Kid Lucky,” or “Freddy Lombard,” or his “Marsupilami” stories, it might be a different story. You just can’t peg some people into pigeon holes sometimes.

 

Recommended?

“Basil & Victoria” is a charming collection of stories. Beautifully illustrated and intricately plotted, the book is satisfying if occasionally troubling. (That was a nasty period of time that none of us would ever want to live in.) The art is beautiful, though the middle plateaus for a bit. And just when it ends, you’ve become familiar with the characters and want to pick up another volume right away. Sadly, there is no such thing.

“Basil & Victoria: London Guttersnipes” is out from Humanoids now. It is a 240 page hardcover book at 8.5 x 11 inches in full color for $40. That’s five European albums for eight bucks a pop at full price. That’s a deal.

An Animated Aside

The series turned into an animated series for French television in the late 90s, after the first three books were published. It lasted 26 episodes. It also took on a new name, “Orson et Olivia.”

That’s the Christmas episode.

The theme song is awful. The series is obviously brighter than the book, but the character designs and some of the painted backgrounds fit right in with the comics.

Edith, herself, worked on the series. Maybe that helps explain part of the large publishing gap between books three and four…

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